Food and Drink in Playa del Carmen
Despite the fact that it is a touristy destination, Playa offers plenty of high-quality food. There is some great local seafood to be had, as well as fine cuts of meat. There's definitely no shortage of places to eat either -- a whopping 1,101 choices, according to TripAdvisor. Most of the town's restaurants are located on or near bustling 5th Avenue, and as a general rule the places closest to the ferry dock are noisier, more crowded and designed for tourists. As you walk north along the pedestrian-only street, or off it toward the main highway, the crowds seem to melt away and you'll find unique little places with a wider variety of cuisine, including fusion restaurants that combine local Mexican fare with Italian, Asian or Mediterranean influences.
Madre Tierra: This restaurant has some of the best steaks and seafood in Playa del Carmen. Its set up a flight of stairs so it overlooks the main avenue, allowing you to enjoy the endless flow of people -- but not be bothered by them. Madre Tierra specializes in cuts of steak at reasonable prices (starting at 330 pesos for a flank steak); the filet mignon comes on a sizzling plate and the New York Strip is tender and tasty. The grilled chicken and fresh, locally caught fish are also delicious. There is a good selection of local starters, including freshly prepared guacamole and squid rings (135 pesos) and delicious desserts -- try the homemade cake, which changes every day (115 pesos). The restaurant also has an impressive wine list, which starts at around 400 pesos for a decent bottle of Malbec. (Calle 14 Nte, Gonzalo Guerrero, Quintana Roo, Mexico; Lunch: served starting at noon)
Karen's: This gaudy restaurant on the main strip is a Playa institution that dates back to 1992. You can't miss it, on account of the bright blue, pink, green and yellow tables that spill onto Fifth Avenue. It's packed and noisy all day long, with a roaming band and a magician/comedian who performs tricks tableside. Karen's is best known for its parilladas - mixed grills -- which are piled high with various local meats, including sausages and steaks. The quality is not the highest, but prices are low and portions are big. To start, make sure you ask for the guacamole, which will be made fresh at your table. The calamares (fried squid) are also excellent. (Calle Quinta Avenida, Centro, 77710 Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico; +52-984-147-7640; open daily noon to midnight)
Las Brisas: This restaurant may be less than a hundred yards off the main drag, but it feels like a million miles away. Las Brisas is friendly and welcoming, though a little rough around the edges. It serves fresh local fare at reasonable prices. (Avenida Coin, 4 corner of Avenue 10, Quintana Roo, Mexico; +52-984- 206-3000; open for lunch and dinner until 10 p.m.)
Carboncitos: Carboncitos is located in Hotel Cielo and is regarded as one of the best Mexican restaurants in Playa, with consistently high scores on TripAdvisor. Expect classic Mexican fare -- such as tacos, salads, nachos and fajitas -- with the occasional fusion dish added to the mix. For heartier appetites, there are also steak and seafood dishes on the menu. Carboncitos has a relaxed, casual atmosphere and is reasonably priced. If your ship is leaving late, be sure to take advantage of the daily happy hour. It's worth noting that this restaurant is cash only. (Calle 4 between La Quinta and the 10th, Quintana Roo, Mexico; +52-984-873-1382; open daily 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.)
It's a tough choice between a classic margarita or a straight shot of tequila. Whichever you go for, you'll find a multitude of establishments serving them along Avenida Quinta.
Beaches in Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen has one long beach, which stretches along the length of town and changes in character as you head south. It's generally a fairly narrow beach, but it becomes wider past the ferry terminal.
Best for Water Sports: At Calle 28, known as Mamitas Beach, there are a couple of beach clubs (including Mamitas and Kool), and a host of water sports shops that rent banana boats, Jet Skis and catamarans and offer parasailing. There are also lots of hip bars and restaurants along this stretch.
Best for Sports: The first beach you get to as you step off the ferry is in front of the town square, and as a result it is one of the liveliest. It has permanent beach volleyball nets set up, and you'll often find locals playing soccer. There are also shops and plenty of beach bars nearby.
Best for Privacy: If you get off the ferry from Cozumel and turn in the other direction and walk just a few minutes' south you'll find the widest and least developed beach, which is in front of the modern Playacar development. Despite the buildings, however, this is the least developed beach with no facilities and no crowds. Make sure you stock up on water and provisions before you settle in to sunbathe.
Don't Miss in Playa del Carmen
5th Avenue: This pedestrian-only street is an attraction unto itself, and it's jam-packed with jewelry stores, craft shops, cantinas, upscale restaurants and more. You can easily spend several hours delving through its assorted treasures. Since the avenue runs parallel to the beach, a fresh view of those beautiful turquoise waters awaits you with each block you travel.
Tulum: If you do just one excursion during your stop, make sure this is the one. You can buy a shore excursion onboard your ship, or go on your own and buy a ticket for the ferry at the ferry terminals in Cozumel or Playa. The taxi at the end of the ferry will cost you around $36, a colectivo significantly less. Note: Tulum is 45 minutes from Playa del Carmen by car, so make sure you leave enough time to get back to your ship, especially if you are docked in Cozumel.
However, you choose to get there, you will be impressed with the site itself. The remains of a walled Mayan city that's over 800 years old, Tulum is the only collection of ruins anywhere on the Yucatan to overlook the Caribbean. With those shimmering blue waters as a background, the various temples and towers are very Instagrammable. There are also several beaches near the ruins for those who want to swim and sunbathe in a completely natural setting with no resorts, snack bars or souvenir shops in sight. There's a charge of roughly $3.50 to enter the ruin complex, and the area is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily with the last entrance at 4:30 p.m.
Cenotes: Whether you are a scuba diver or a snorkeler, no trip to this region of the Yucatan is complete without a visit to the cenotes. Cenotes are freshwater sinkholes in the jungle that formed when sea levels dropped and the ground above collapsed. They vary in size, shape and accessibility, and there are an estimated 6,000 on the peninsula. Many lie just a few minutes' drive from downtown Playa. Take your swim suit and snorkeling gear (or pre-book scuba diving) and for a small fee you can dive right in. The water is crystal clear and many have ancient stalactite and stalagmite formations under the surface. The water is a degree or two lower in temperature than the sea, and they are a refreshing way to discover the area. The most popular is Gran Cenote, which lies near Tulum. (Gran Cenote, Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico; open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Admission: $25)
Xcaret Eco Theme Park: Imagine an amusement park dedicated to animals, nature and the ancient Maya culture and you've got Xcaret, a sprawling 200-acre park filled with attractions. Guests can float down an underground river; visit a butterfly pavilion, a bee farm and a manatee lagoon; stroll through a model of a Mayan village; and even swim with dolphins (for an extra fee). The park is only 5 miles south of Playa del Carmen, and about a 10-minute ride by car. The park received a TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence in 2017. (Chetumal-Puerto Juarez Federal Highway, Km. 282. Solidaridad, Quintana Roo, Mexico; +52-984-206-0038; open daily 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. in the summer and 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. in winter. Adult admission: $59)
Chichen Itza: The Yucatan's other famous Mayan ruins, Chichen Itza, is a longer trek than Tulum (around three hours each way), but it is equally stunning. The site, right in the middle of the jungle, contains a mix of temples, pyramids and carvings that date back to the seventh and eighth centuries as well as a main pyramid -- the Temple of Kukulcan -- which was recently declared one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. Day trips to both Mayan sites can be booked through local tour operators; two of the most reputable tour operators are Intermar Caribe (+52-987-273-5960 or firstname.lastname@example.org) and Turismo Aviomar (+52-987-872-5444). You can also book day trips with Viator.com.
Note: Independent travelers should know an excursion to Chichen Itza means a long day -- including a three-hour bus ride in each direction and a ferry ride from Cozumel. This is one of the times we actually recommend taking this trip as part of your ship's shore excursion program because the logistics are so complicated.
Scuba Diving and Snorkeling: Together with Cozumel, Playa del Carmen offers some of the best diving and snorkeling sites in the Caribbean. Year-round warm waters, a healthy reef system (which forms part of the 700-mile Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second-longest in the world after Australia's Great Barrier Reef); great visibility, an abundance of marine life and the aforementioned cenotes, all come together to create a great dive experience.
Your best bet is to book ahead -- just make sure you check you can get to the dive center in time as the first dive is often at 8 or 9 a.m. If you do wait until you arrive, you'll find that operators are located beach side of La Quinta. Keep an eye out for dive operators who post PADI Gold Star stickers in their windows; these are considered Playa's top dive establishments. One of the best is Phocea Mexico, a French-run establishment that's excellent for beginners and advanced divers alike. (Calle 10, between 1st and 5th, Quintana Roo, Mexico; +52-974-873-1210)